The poem opens with a reference to the Iliad: 'Sithen the sege and assaut was sesed at Troye'. This immediately alerts us of the epic, heroic nature of the poem and sets us in the historical frame of mind in which the poem expected us to read Gawain. We are told of the progress of civilisation, the march of heroes and learning from Rome to Tuscany, France and onwards to Britain. The poet expands this point to ironical effect by contrasting the learning and civilisation of the past with the: 'werre and wrake and wonder' of the present. The poet continues in the reflective mode, calling to mind the British kings, and the greatest of them all: King Arthur. The poet lets the reader know that he will tell the tale in the traditional fashion, as he had heard it, continuing the cycle of the tale: 'I schal telle hit astit, as I in toun herde, with tonge, As hit is stad and stoken'.
The poem relates the celebrations at New Year in Arthur's court: Camelot. The guests sit around playing games and talking, Guinevere, Arthur's wife, in the centre. Arthur has made a vow that he will not eat until he has received some kind of challenge. The poet presents the court as rather self-satisfied: as if it had not been adequately tested to enjoy the position of power suggested by the opulent festivities.
A magnificent green knight, described in intricate detail, enters the court. The knight is carrying a holly branch, a sign of peace, and is welcomed by Arthur. The knight suggests a game and Arthur agrees. The knight is condescending and reserved, maintaining a composed threatening presence whilst not being overtly antagonistic.
The knight suggests that they play a game with axes. The challenger gets a swing at the knight, which he will return in a year's time. Gawain, a knight in Arthur's court, suggests that he take up the challenge. His courtly speech suggests that he is rather foppish and lacking in experience. Gawain takes the Green Knight's axe from Arthur, the knight crouches and Gawain swings at his neck. The head flies off, but the knight remains standing, calmly picks up his head and gets onto his horse, which is also green. The knight tells Gawain that he must find the Green Chapel: if he does not he will be known throughout the land as a coward.
Arthur is rather baffled by the whole affair, but encourages the revellers to continue with their feasting, now that he may eat, a challenge having been issued. The section ends with the poet issuing a warning to Gawain:"Now thenk wel, Sir Gawan,
For worthe that thou ne wonde
This aventure for to frayn,
That thou has tan on honde."
There is a sadder and more bitter note to the second part of the poem. There is an extensive description of the natural surroundings, showing the cycle of the seasons leading inevitably towards winter when the Green Knight's prophecy must be fulfilled. Gawain spends Christmas at the court of Arthur. After the Christmas mass Gawain asks his leave and puts on his armour. His horse Gringolet is dressed ready for battle too. Finally he takes his shield, which is decorated on the outside with a pentangle: symbolic of the five virtues. On the inside is a picture of the Virgin Mary. Gawain picks up his lance ready to fight.
The courtiers mourn his exit, fearing that this is the last time they will see him. Gawain travels through countryside that is surprisingly realistically described. The road he takes becomes more and more gloomy; finally he plunges into a wood. He prays to the Virgin Mary to send him a safe resting place. As he prays, he sees, as if miraculously, a castle on a hill rising up before him. As he comes towards the castle, the door slams shut in his face and the drawbridge is raised. The castle again exemplifies the Gawain Poet's obsession with the ambiguous: it is realistically presented in the style of the poet's time, but many of the details are unreal: the ghostly white hue, for instance. A porter comes to the gate and Gawain enters the castle: called Hautdesert. The castle is described as a sort of Eden: but it must be remembered that Eden was the scene of man's fall as well as an earthly paradise. Gawain is presented to the host, who is large and disturbingly similar to the Green Knight. The two feast together with many cheerful courtiers. After the meal Gawain meets the ladies of the castle: one is truly beautiful, one hideously ugly. The poet here presents the characters in antithesis: each accentuates the positive and negative characteristics
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